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Voice risk analysis

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Last updated 29th November 2010.

Voice risk analysis (“lie detector” or “VRA”) technology is used in telephone calls on insurance claims. It was trialled for welfare benefit claims, but the DWP has abandoned plans to introduce it for these. VRA aims to spot people who are more likely to be giving false information. This may unfairly disadvantage people who stammer.

About voice risk analysis

Voice risk analysis flashes up on a screen whether answers given by a caller are HR (‘high risk’, ie. more likely to be false) or LR (‘low risk’). At the start of an interview the software is ‘calibrated’ by asking basic questions such as name, address and date of birth. This is taken as ‘normal, and the software looks at changes in voice patterns when further questions are asked, such as any hesitation or unwillingness to answer a question. Depending on readings from the software, the claim can be either fast-tracked or subjected to more rigorous scrutiny. (This is summarised from Disability Alliance Factsheet: Voice risk analysis and benefit claims (external link). Please see that for further detail.)

Equality Act implications and stammering

People who stammer may be flagged up as high risk because of hesitations, backtrackings or other features produced by the stammer – or any result of the software may simply be unreliable because it is not geared to stammering (see below Problems using VRA with stammering). There is an article on the British Stammering Association website: Worries over voice risk analysis to combat crime (stamma.org) dated Summer 2006.

Subjecting a person to particularly rigorous investigation because of their stammer, through voice risk analysis, may well be a breach of various provisions of the Equality Act – including ‘indirect discrimination’, the duty to make reasonable adjustments, and ‘discrimination arising from disability’. Results from the software should be disregarded where the claimant has a stammer, both for Equality Act reasons and because the software’s results will (presumably) not be useful in such cases.

That is all well and good if (a) interviewers are told to disregard/cancel HR results from stammering and (b) the interviewer realises the person has a stammer and does indeed follow the instructions. I do not know what, if any, instructions interviewers are given about stammering. Even if the instructions are given and followed, an important point is that the interviewer may not realise the person has a stammer. A key feature of stammering is that the person will often try to hide it. Assuming use of voice risk analysis is justified in the first place, it may be an obligation under the Equality Act to adequately train interviewers to recognise (so far as possible) a person who has a stammer or other communication impairment. Another point to consider could be whether a caller should be invited to say whether they have a relevant communication condition.

Insurance claims

Insurance companies often use voice risk analysis software on people phoning up to make claims, to flag up any that are likely to be dishonest. Claims flagged up by the software can then be subject to particularly rigorous investigation. See Worries over voice risk analysis to combat crime (stamma.org), Summer 2006. As outlined above, these arrangements may breach the Equality Act.

Benefit claims

Voice risk analysis was piloted for welfare benefit claims from 2007. Also, though, representations were made to the Department for Work Pensions (DWP) about the problems of using the software with disabled claimants.

As a result of these trials, in Autumn 2010 the DWP abandoned plans to introduce VRA for welfare benefits. This seems to be in view of the general results, rather than because of any particular concerns about communication disorders. It also seems unlikely that local authorities will continue to use VRA for administering welfare benefits – many of the trials were conducted by local authorities dealing with housing benefit and council tax benefit.

More on the trials and abandonment of plans:

Stammering can have a severe impact in terms of economic exclusion. Therefore a person who stammers may be more likely than average to require benefits. Use of voice recognition technology for welfare benefits may breach Equality Act rules on public functions unless there are appropriate safeguards for stammering and other communication impairments. Its use may also involve a breach of the disability equality duty unless stammering and other communication disabilities are properly considered.

Problems using voice risk analysis with stammering

  • ‘Basic’ questions such as name and address are often a particular struggle for someone who stammers. Yet these basic questions are apparently used to ‘calibrate’ the software to the interviewee’s ‘normal’ pitch and tone, enabling it to detect any change on the later more probing questions. Where a person struggles on those basic questions, one would not expect the software to give any useful results.
  • Alternatively, the normal hesitations or other features of stammering may trigger the software.
  • The fact that the person will be notified when their speech is going to be analysed by a lie detector may serve to increase stress levels and dysfluency, which may make them more likely to be suspected of fraud.
  • Apparently the interviewer has the power to override HR messages to prevent false readings, e.g. if someone is hard of hearing and hesitates. However, a key feature of stammering is that the person often tries to hide the fact that they stammer. The interviewer may well not realise that they have a stammer. The interviewer may just hear hesitations, backtracking, filler phrases such as “well, you see” due to the person trying to hide the stammer. These may be interpreted by the software as HR (high risk).
  • See also Mistaking stammering for dishonesty (in context of court appearances).

For issues of using VRA where a person has a disability, see also Disability Alliance Factsheet: Voice risk analysis and benefit claims (external link).

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